Letter To A Young Narrative Designer

A young man contacted me recently to ask for some advice on getting into games writing. At time of writing, he was working in QA at a AAA studio in the US. He told me he thought I had ‘achieved a lot’ and was keen to glean what he could from my experience. He also highlighted his desire for improved dialogue writing.

I probably ramble a bit, but he’d sent me a promising example of interactive fiction and, when I was growing up, I never had someone that could share the reality of this stuff with me.

Maybe my thoughts will be of help to you too.

(I’ve redacted some stuff for privacy.) 

Hey T, good to hear from you.

I think we can all always improve in the dialogue department. An unfortunate reality of games is that the most believable or stylised dialogue can be at odds with the needs of the player.

Think of the surreal debates of a Tarantino film or the incredibly deft but often very meandering exchanges of a Wes Anderson — it’s tempting (especially for me) to try and recreate those styles, but usually I have to curb my enthusiasm to write something that will deliver the relevant information and not destroy the pacing at the same time. As well as catering for players who may not, a) want to read lengthy, smartass exposition and b) may frankly not appreciate it even if they did.

All food for thought. I would say, in my experience the ability to coherently craft branching dialogue is far secondary to making an effective critical path. What I mean by that is, most games I work on, we end up making the dialogue (if indeed it branches at all) more like a figure of eight than a trident shape, with key, unavoidable narrative beats but slightly different routes to and through them depending on how the player wants to role play.

In my own tastes but so too the industry at large, I see and foresee this trend continuing and I think games and their stories will be better for it.

That said, you are already learning Ink, and it’s the best interactive dialogue script going. Good shit.

I think you’re wise to want to work with smaller teams. Of course you have more control. I’ve not worked with a team of more than about 10 as a games writer, but in my old career in advertising, I worked in a substantially bigger office and I do not think I would do so again.

There is human cost, an energy cost to all that people wrangling, the meetings, etc — as I’m sure you’re already aware, that drains those precious reserves of time, willpower and creativity that a great story requires.

I have never participated in a game jam. I’ve heard them spoken of fondly and I’m sure they’re a great way to meet people, but I worry that time could be better spent finding and working on projects with existing momentum. It’s always a chicken and egg debate.

I will say this, if you see a promising looking jam, consider it by all means but sit down and work out how many hours you think it will take, all told, including travel and such, and think whether that time may be spent more productively honing your craft alone or building relationships with existing devs/projects that may need junior writing help. And rest assured, writers of all levels are needed, it’s just a matter of matching your skills, passions and budget to the right project.

I’m glad it seems like I’ve achieved a lot from the outside! Do remember, it always looks more impressive from the outside….

My journey was a meandering one. I studied literature and film, then worked briefly in experiential marketing for an agency with the Xbox live promo account. After that, I spent a couple of years at an online video start up set up by my friend. I was essentially a new business guy, producer, and cameraman.

Through some chance networking, I met my future boss at Maker Studios (which was bought and absorbed by Disney for more money than I can even comprehend), where I worked mostly as the EMEA and APAC coordinator for our gaming channels, which included the likes of Pewdiepie. Using those connections (actually, before I started the job) I was able to get some games journalism work, my first article being a feature on gaming youtubers, which believe it nor not was a novelty at the time, and included an interview with Pewdiepie, etc.

I tell you these details so you can see the reality — I struggled, I procrastinated. I experimented and I had rent to pay. I had no-one to point me in the right direction and certainly no game specific education. So you’re ahead of me there!

After a few years burning out and selling my soul at Maker, I took the plunge, quit my dayjob, co-founded a studio and then left it for reasons not fair to burden you with after about 3 years to go freelance.

What would I tell my younger self if I had the chance?

Don’t force things. Prepare as best you can, but make sure to enjoy life in the meantime. Opportunities will come when they come. Seize them! But do not chase them endlessly.

Do not offer more of yourself than the other person or people that you’re working with. Do not give in to sunk cost fallacy. Trust easily, but not blindly.

Talent is irrelevant. What people hire you for is your personality, the things you can bond over/a shared vision, and demonstrable experience — especially in ‘finishing’ things. Be that an article, your own short stories, hobby projects.

Continue to develop your complementary skills. It is much easier to work with a writer who is experienced in marketing and/or product management than it is a writer who is also very good at gardening. But do garden – it’s wonderful for the spirit and, according to Miyamoto, for game design inspiration.

Wear your passions on your sleeve. I got my foot in the door in a great project once for essentially saying a game reminded me of a Wes Anderson movie. It helped I’d studied film and could talk authoritatively about film in that instance, but it was the first mention that made their eyes light up.

Study film.

Read. Read. Read. Read. You want to be a good writer? A great writer? Write convincing and compelling dialogue? READ. Write a lot too, but always read more than you write. ‘Reading’ includes comics, films, games, good bad and everything in between.

Do not worry about your ‘profile’. Do not confuse a loud and obvious social media profile with the right people being aware of you.

In fact — I’d probably say just don’t go on social media at all unless very strictly necessary.

Build relationships early. The best way to get on a project is before they know they need you. Never be afraid to say ‘I want to work on this with you. Here’s how I’ll make it worth your while.’

p.s. if you haven’t already, blog — on medium or your own website — blog about game design, writing, etc. Share your process. Don’t put up a facade of ‘perfection’, and forget about perfection in general. Start immediately. Enjoy it. Some of mine for inspiration, if i may be so bold.

Faux-Irony Is A Dead Scene

Or: How Tao Lin’s influence is beginning to be felt from indie to AAA games.

I’ve got a serious syntactical bone to pick with a particular brand of twee internet-speak that I’ve noticed has begun to infect narrative games recently. And I blame Tao Lin and Twitter.

The most recent victim of this is Mass Effect Andromeda, but it was most likely Life Is Strange which started the trend of ‘flippantitis’ as I’ve pointed out beforein games. Another notable recent example is Night In The Woods, which is essentially LiS but even more painfully earnest in its gratingly ‘ironic’ writing. For more examples cf. Horizon Zero Dawn, most of Destiny, Gone Home, Firewatch etc, Oxenfree, etc, etc.

Eurogamer commenter Cobalt_jackal sums it up quite nicely actually under the Andromeda review.

Fan fiction level, cringe af, tween, inane, Z-list hack writing

Badly delivered, stilted dialogue.

I can’t help but strongly agree with him.

Workplace sexual harassment disguised as ‘cute’.

And we’ve all seen this by now haven’t we?

And Night In The Woods doesn’t fare much better. It’s a charming game in so many ways that it just frustrates me the more. Protagonist Mae and her small-town friends deal with some interesting topics but in such a blasé, twee and painfully ‘uber-cool’ tone of voice that I found it difficult to sit through more than ten minutes of it at a time. Sure, it accurately reflects the way a certain segment of pre or post American teens might speak, but boy does it lay it on thick.

And don’t just take my word for it — the lead writer, Scott Benson cited ‘Twitter’ as his main source of dialogue/tone of voice inspiration:

Benson, a seasoned animator and illustrator from Pittsburgh…admitted to Joystiq at E3 that drafting lines for a video game is new to him: “I’ve never written fiction or characters really before,” as his previous animated shorts tended to be of the silent type. Benson had an interesting source of inspiration for his witty one-liners, then: Twitter. As he explained, the social media channel “has the same kind of cadence and kind of vague feelings” as Mae and friends display in Night in the Woods.

It’s all very reminiscent of Tao Lin’s Shoplifting From American Appareloften cited as an apex in novella form of the ‘apathy is cool’ school. Of course this movement can also be traced back further, Vice Magazine which started in 1994, some ten years before Tao Lin’s book, being the obvious forefather.

Back to Life Is Strange, a fantastic game all-told, with some genuinely emotional character beats and great pacing. The fact it went overboard with the hipster-isms is kinda old news now. The cutesy/twee vibes, the angsty/ironic notebook (ripped off shamelessly by NitW) and the painfully awkward delivery (intentionally or otherwise) frequently made me roll my eyes, but they’re accurate hallmarks of rebellious teenage years we may or may not like to forget. It’s a coming of age story that succeeds despite its vernacular, not because of it.

Night in the Woods: some will identify with the tone of voice strongly. For me, it ruins the entire game.

What gets me though, is that these three games consistently feel so self indulgent. It might be hilarious for a sub-set of Western millennials but you can’t substitute genuine pathos and humour for some ‘lolz’. NitW lays claim to a similar tone to LiS but I think veers wildly from ‘well observed’ to ‘contrived and tone-deaf’. And Andromeda absolutely has no business employing this kind of thing. Not because I think sci-fi is too arch to be humorous, but, well, a very contemporaneous (i.e. specific to this time) kind of humour doesn’t really mesh with a depiction of an inter-species far future.

I just want to make a plea to game-writers: don’t mistake memes and internet culture for genuine human communication. When we — or our characters — fall back on tired mass-meme tropes and verbal crutches, we celebrate how language evolves, but at the expense of what it can make you feel.

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